Over the years, Barcelona’s traditional Tiki-Taka brand of football has disappeared, much to the dismay of the Blaugrana faithful. However, after just twelve games in charge, Quique Setién has gained instant popularity at the Camp Nou by making Barcelona an attractive side to watch again. This article will look into why this could be the start of another famous era in Catalonia.
Improving the style of play is an important early achievement and Barcelona have enjoyed consistent dominance of Spanish football, but in recent times they have struggled to live up to those same levels in European football. This is Setién’s main task: to win the UEFA Champions League.
It’s fair to say Setién doesn’t have the CV of recent Champions League winners such as Jurgen Klopp or Zinedine Zidane, but his time at Real Betis and Las Palmas provides plenty of encouragement. This is a coach who has been backed in the past as a future Barcelona manager by his idol Johan Cruyff. In fact, upon taking the job in January, the likes of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta were also quick to voice their approval of Setién.
Photo: Pep Morata / Mundo Deportivo
His time at Betis was particularly successful, leading Los Verdiblancos into Europe for the first time since 2013, with a scintillating brand of football that won many admirers along the way. Real Betis didn’t just win at the Camp Nou and the Bernabéu last season, they played both Barcelona and Real Madrid off the park on both occasions. If Setién is to make Barcelona a force in Europe again, though, he will need to prove he has the tactical acumen to beat the very best on a regular basis.
Contrary to popular belief, Setién has not inherited an easy job from his predecessor Ernesto Valverde. It is true that Barcelona were top of the table upon his arrival and have won the last two La Liga titles by comfortable margins, but the results under Valverde largely papered over structural cracks. The Blaugranas rarely looked in control of games and regularly became desperate for real moments of magic from Lionel Messi to get them out of trouble.
The makeup of the squad is unbalanced; while they possess world class players such as Marc-André Ter Stegen and Antoine Griezmann, the rest of the squad is built up of players who are either on the wrong side of 30 and past their prime, or young players who aren’t ready to deliver on a consistent basis at this moment in time. Luis Suárez and Ousmane Dembélé’s long term injuries don’t help the cause either.
Set Up / Team Selection
Setién isn’t loyal to any specific team shape, having deployed three different formations at Barcelona: 4-3-3, 3-1-4-2 and a 4-4-2 narrow diamond. He has never had a preferred go-to shape; the specific layout of the team doesn’t seem to be important to him. In modern football, most managers fit the players around a chosen formation, but he focuses more on the 11 players he wants to start and deploys a formation most suitable to the players he selects.
Photo: Raul Caro/EPA-EFE
Valverde was often criticised for having ‘favourites’ and ‘undroppable’ individual players. This isn’t the case with Setién, only six players: Ter Stegen, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong, Messi and Griezmann have started 10 or more games under Setién so far and 16 players have started three or more games. He certainly is a man who believes in rotation; whilst at Betis last season, only four players started 30 or more games in the league for Setién.
There is a ruthlessness to his method of team selection; good performances will always be rewarded with starts, but a bad individual display often leads to spending time on the bench or in some cases not even being handed a place in the next game’s match-day squad. Everyone in the squad knows where they stand, and more importantly, are kept on their toes. The chosen shape and personnel can change from game to game, but the way the team plays is never compromised regardless of the system or the opponent they face.
Now let’s break down Setién’s main three formations:
Setién tends to use Nélson Semedo and Jordi Alba as his full backs in this system with their stamina, and in Semedo’s case, quick acceleration providing the width going forward. This allows Messi and Ansu Fati to cut inside from the wide positions.
Ivan Rakitić tends to play more often than Arturo Vidal and Arthur Melo when this shape is employed, presumably the reason being the ease of rotation within the midfield trident in the build up play. Rakitić has played several games this season as an out-and-out holding midfielder, and he has the ability to rotate positions with Busquets in the middle of attacking moves or when Barcelona are out of possession.
Griezmann tends to play as a false 9 in this shape, whilst Messi and Fati play as inside forwards within a three man forward line. It follows a similar idea to the Mohammed Salah-Roberto Firmino-Sadio Mané trident at Liverpool.
4-4-2 narrow diamond
The same back four is used, only with even more emphasis on Semedo and Alba to provide width from the full back position. Arthur tends to be used in this shape to help assist De Jong, in a bid to control the game in the middle of the park. Vidal is used in the 10 role, due to him being the Blaugrana’s biggest current goal threat outside of Messi and Griezmann.
Setién has used this system in big games against Napoli and Real Madrid away, a diamond system that can flood the midfield and overcrowd the opposition in the middle of the pitch. If things aren’t going to plan, Barcelona often switch to a 4-3-3, which sees Vidal moved to the right of the front three.
When Setién opts for this shape, Samuel Umtiti is preferred in the back three to Clément Lenglet. Like most three-at-the-back systems, a full back will play within the back line in order to cover the wide areas out of possession, oftentimes Roberto. Ansu Fati is used as a wing back in this shape, but is given licence to attack like a winger. Fati is allowed to dribble with the ball and take risks, due to having Roberto on the cover.
Alba plays on the other side, but operates as a more traditional wing back. Due to having less defensive cover behind him, he will look to combine with the forwards or the midfield, rather than making driving runs with the ball. Vidal tends to be preferred over Arthur and Rakitić as one of the midfield interiors in this shape, due to the Chilean’s ability to cover ground and win the ball back in attacking areas.
On the ball, Vidal can also assist Fati and Alba out wide far more effectively than Barcelona’s other interior options. Messi and Griezmann once again play up front together, with Messi tending to drop deep as a second striker, whilst Griezmann uses his pace to run in behind as a more out-and-out centre forward.
Most managers deploy different shapes to try and expose the opposition’s weaknesses or combat the opponent’s strengths, but Setién believes that the players he selects carries greater value to the team than making tactical adjustments to react to the opposition.
As shown above, within one minute of Setién’s debut, the new way of thinking was already evident. Barcelona were being pressed in their own box by Diego Martínez’s Granada, but instead of going long, they elected to play through the press despite the risks involved. They also recorded their highest possession count in a game since 2011, in Setién’s first game in charge.
Barcelona have averaged 69.6% possession per game under Setién (the highest average possession count in Europe), a testament to just how quickly he has been able to put his ideas across. There is the valid criticism of tiki taka, that it can become possession for the sake of possession with no purpose, but this hasn’t been the case for Barcelona so far in the build up play.
Under Setién, Barcelona always look to play out the back, and this is massively helped by Ter Stegen being an excellent ball-playing goalkeeper. One of Setién’s main trademarks throughout his career has been the formation of passing triangles in all phases of build up play. Here, this triangle presents the player in possession with multiple passing lanes in order to maintain possession and keep creating angles if they can’t play between the lines quickly.
Busquets, Barcelona’s best passer of the ball, is naturally the conductor of the team in the build up, averaging over 100 passes per game since Setién’s hiring in January. It’s worth noting how compact the team is, with each player constantly within 25 metres of each other. This allows them to play short, simple passes amongst each other, and makes them far less likely to be exposed on the counter-attack.
The team naturally struggled in transition under Valverde due to a general lack of pace and athleticism, but this switch to a more patient build up makes it harder for teams to exploit their flaws. On the rare occasions that Barca turn the ball over, there is little space for the opposition to play into. The opposition’s strategy against Setién’s tika taka triangles is to press high to force a turnover and disrupt the rhythm, whilst some teams drop deeper into a low block to make it difficult for Barcelona to progress into the final third.
Setién has already found multiple solutions to both approaches, as displayed below. Note how Jordi Alba at left back has moved inside whilst Nélson Semedo at right back has done the opposite and kept his width close to the touchline. This is a tactical decoy with the objective being to provide Lenglet with an easy passing option to the left, whilst Semedo on the inactive right side is keeping the pitch as wide as possible.
When the opposition press high, they aim to cut off the player in possession’s passing lines as shown above. By keeping the pitch as big as possible on the other side, Barcelona have an option to switch play and move the opponent’s high press around to recreate the space. Here the opposition has cut off the options for Piqué, however, by Jordi Alba keeping his width on the other side, they can open the space back up from the left.
Busquets and Lenglet are more than capable of switching play when one area of the pitch becomes congested, as is Piqué. Setién utilizes all three players’s long-range passing abilities in order to break the press when the team can’t progress through their preferred short passing triangles. Barcelona are more than capable of adapting and mixing up their range of passing when needed.
The opposition will also try to press the source of the initial buildup: Ter Stegen and the back 3/4. As we can see here, they have committed three players to press high. Ter Stegen, however, is composed in these situations and is more than capable of bypassing the back four by picking out the central point of the build up in Busquets. This quality of this pass takes three Bilbao players out of the equation and makes it easier for Barca to overload the pitch horizontally.
Busquets is often man-marked to take the build-up controller out of play, but Setién has a solution to this as well. When the back four can’t pick out Busquets, one of the interiors (in this case De Jong) will drop in alongside Busquets and become the new central point who reforms the passing triangles.
With the opposition being so focused on Busquets, De Jong has plenty of time and space to conduct the game as the replacement conductor.
As Barcelona progress up the pitch, they move forward as a team, with all 10 outfielders in the opposition half forming triangular spacing.
When teams opt to sit back, rather than press high, this is where possession can become sterile. However, the same principles apply when they face congestion in the early build-up. Here, Fati keeps his width to allow Piqué a long range passing option.
Barcelona are also capable of moving to one-touch football in the middle third in order to break down a mid-low block and progress quickly into the final third. The big emphasis of Setién’s philosophy is to control the middle of the park. As Setién himself once said, “in both chess and football you have to control the centre of the pitch.”
By keeping the team compact, Barcelona maintain simple short passing options available to all players at all times. The centre backs act as 4th and 5th midfielders pushing high up the pitch, allowing the Blaugrana side to dominate possession in the middle of the pitch.
It’s in the build-up play where Setién has made his biggest mark so far. The Cantabrian coach has found innovative ways to counteract a high press or low block in the build up play. To change this element of the Blaugrana’s play so dramatically, in the middle of the season with little time to work and without reinforcements, is nothing short of genius management from Setién.
Attack and Creativity
Tiki Taka has returned, but Barcelona are still struggling to turn possession and midfield dominance into goal-scoring chances in the final third. In fact, Barcelona have scored fewer goals per game under Setién than they did under Valverde. They are averaging a mere 13 shots per game, which pales in comparison to many of Europe’s elite.
Suárez and Dembélé’s long-term injuries haven’t helped matters, leaving Setién with only four attacking options: Messi, Griezmann, Fati, and Martin Braithwaite. Nevertheless, Setién is working to build an effective attacking game plan, and do more with less.
Barcelona’s main form of attack so far has come from quick through balls from deep over the top of the opposition’s defence. Here we see Messi drop deep and look to pick out De Jong with an exquisite clipped pass. This leads to a goal, a goal that draws parallels to Cruyff’s total football approach, with De Jong filling the space vacated by Messi in the build up.
Most of Barcelona’s play still comes from Messi dropping deep, but the midfield has begun to contribute more in the build-up, with Busquets beginning to emerge as a genuine creator. This has rarely been an element of the game we have associated with Busquets, but Setién has found another weapon from his artillery.
Here we see a wonderful pass from Busquets (just out of the picture), and this regista-like pass has become a regular feature in Barcelona’s attack under Setién. Busquets isn’t just at the centre of everything within Setién’s triangular build up; he now has creative responsibility. When Barcelona need to move the ball quicker, he can play one-touch passes into the final third and ease the creative burden on Messi.
The other form of attack for Barcelona is from the full backs in the wide areas. Busquets has also shown he can feed the wide areas, leading to high-quality chances in the box. However, Barca don’t possess the full backs with the creativity in the final third of a player like Dani Alves or Marcelo.
Jordi Alba at left back has become increasingly wasteful in the final third, often making the wrong decisions. This lack of genuine quality and the unavailability of Dembélé in the wide areas means that Barcelona don’t utilise this area as well as they can. The bulk of creativity still falls on Messi, but the new found creativity from Busquets does help.
Barcelona have struggled to score traditional Tiki Taka goals from neat interchanges in the box, but this says more about the squad’s makeup than Setién’s effectiveness as a manager. The likes of De Jong and Fati don’t have the same composure to pick the right pass in tight areas as the likes of Xavi and Villa, and Setién will need far more time to inject his ideas into his players and establish his philosophy in the final third.
Messi’s brilliance has masked Barcelona’s problems going forward, which have continued to worsen since Neymar’s departure in 2017. As such, the Blaugranas have opted for more conventional attacking techniques in the final third.
Defending and off-the-ball work
Off the ball, Setién has kept it simple but structured. Barcelona are now far less open without the ball, and as a result, have drastically improved defensively. There is room for improvement, but this is another area Setién has addressed with success.
Barcelona often press with just one player (as seen above) whilst the rest of the team maintains their shape. The aim is not necessarily geared towards winning the ball, but to rush the opposition and try to force a long ball, which Piqué, Lenglet or Busquets can use their aerial prowess to win. Messi forces the long goal kick, whilst Fati and Griezmann stay disciplined and in position.
The current makeup of the squad doesn’t have the athleticism to employ a counter press on every turnover of possession; the only time the team presses in a synchronised manner is when the potential benefits outweigh the risks.
For example, in the above picture, if Bilbao turned the ball over here, Barcelona would have a dangerous counter attacking opportunity, therefore they pressed with higher intensity. It’s sensible management from Setién; Barça need to be compact without the ball due to the current squad they have.
As well as attacking as a team, Barcelona defend like a team by maintaining a rigid shape defensively, with all the outfield players retreating into their own half. There is undoubtedly a need for Barcelona to address the defensive weaknesses at full back and center back, but the improved organisation as a team has helped.
Piqué, Lenglet, and Busquets in particular have formed a solid defensive base without the ball, and Setién has tried to help his full backs by instructing Busquets to move to full back whenever one of the full backs pushes forward, once again, echoing the principles of Cruyff’s Total Football.
Criticisms of Setién
Whilst there is plenty of reason to praise Setién’s impact, he has made errors in team selection along the way. The selection of Umtiti over Lenglet at centre back in the biggest games such as Real Madrid, Napoli and Valencia away hasled to problems defensively in all three games.
It’s also disappointing how little we have seen of Arthur Melo and Riqui Puig this season, but as Barcelona look to move on from the likes of Rakitić and Vidal, there is hope that both midfielders will play bigger roles in the coming years.
Results-wise, it hasn’t all been rosy so far, with horrible performances in Valencia and Napoli. The first half display away to Ibiza in the Copa Del Rey was amongst the worst and most embarrassing displays in the club’s recent history. Barcelona have looked toothless at times going forward, and with attackers like Messi and Griezmann, it is disappointing they haven’t scored more goals.
Judging Setién’s performance on his results so far would be jumping the gun, considering the fixtures and injuries Barcelona have faced so far. He has demonstrated impressive game management, winning two games already from losing positions and grabbing an important away goal from behind in Naples in the Champions League. Barcelona have yet to drop any points from winning positions so far, whilst also moving further clear in the La Liga title race.
Photo: FC Barcelona
Considering all the challenges that Setién has faced from the minute he walked through the door, if he can win the league and make Barcelona competitive in Europe (i.e. not throwing away 3-goal leads in Europe), it will have been a very good first season.
If Barcelona can bring in players who are more athletic to form a more intensive pressing style while also strengthening the full back options, they will make some serious inroads off the ball. Recruitment will be key, and if they can build on the foundations put in place so far, there is a real chance we will see Setién fulfilling his ambition to “walk amongst the cows (in his hometown village) with the Champions League.”
At 61 years of age, Setién is naturally seen as a short-term fix, but if he can impose an identity in the attacking phase that makes Barcelona less reliant on Messi, he may just become the long-term coach that the Catalans need to transition to a new era.
Throughout Setién’s journeyman career, there has never been a guarantee of results, but one thing that is assured is entertainment and a team the fans can be proud of. Make no mistake about it, this could be the start of a new magical era for Barcelona.
By: Oscar Mario
Featured Image: Gabriel Fraga